The State Of The Jewish Union (Then, And Now)


Editor’s Note: On rereading this column, first written and published here in September 1996, I realized how many key concerns about Jewish life remain today, almost two decades later.

One of the most beautiful elements of the High Holy Day liturgy is that Jews pray collectively, not individually. The word “we” is central to our prayers, not “I,” whether it involves asking for God’s blessings or acknowledging our sins. We realize intuitively that there is strength in numbers and that all we have is each other.

Yet for an American Jewish community obsessed with survival, focusing on statistical surveys that indicate our numbers may be dwindling through intermarriage and assimilation, we spend a lot of time alienating rather than embracing each other.

Approaching Rosh HaShanah, it is fitting to reflect on our shortcomings as a community and resolve to improve ourselves in the coming year.

The litany of our communal feuds is well known: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform leaders continue to denigrate each other, eschewing dialogue on religious matters because each believes the other’s form of Judaism will soon disappear. The result is that many young people are disillusioned by a religious community perceived as more committed to building walls than bridges between denominations.

When it comes to the Mideast, hawkish and dovish Jews spent more time vilifying each other this past year than working together on Israel’s behalf. Each side thinks the other’s policies spell doom for the country they all claim to love, but whose cause they hurt by quarrelling with each other. And for all the calls for civil discourse and more respectful debate — particularly in light of the Rabin assassination and the ugly rhetoric that preceded and some say precipitated it — our level of tolerance has not increased.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, speaking here this week, expressed deep concern about the nature of democracy in Israel and said the lack of tolerance has grown worse since Rabin’s death.

Even a New York community rally called last winter to memorialize the fallen Israeli leader was marred by political differences as some sought to insure that their presence at Madison Square Garden would not be viewed as an endorsement of the peace process that led to the prime minister’s murder.

I am not suggesting that we take the famous UJA rallying cry “We Are One” too literally. Throughout our history we Jews were never one; indeed unanimity is a dangerous sign in a society that values freedom, individual rights and diversity. Why would young Jews want to become active in a community so lacking in creativity and choice that its views are all the same, dictated from above? Disagreement and debate are healthy signs of life, indicating a passion of concern.

This point is particularly relevant for a Jewish newspaper that seeks, as this one does, to report and comment as thoroughly and objectively as possible on the news of the community.

There are those in positions of leadership who would stifle debate and muzzle the press in a misguided belief that the community’s best interests are served through consensus, not only in action but thought. Yet such policies would only lead to higher levels of disinterest among the masses, and particularly the young, who recognize the difference between Pravda and a free press, between airing points of view and imposing them.

Where, then, do we draw the line within communal debate between diversity and destruction? The critical components are mutual respect and over-arching beliefs and values. Those criteria go back to the Talmud, which, in describing the sharp debates between the rabbis over religious practices, said in effect that both sides are correct because “the words of God are alive.”

That is to say there need not be only one right approach, as long as each side sees the legitimacy of the other, and its position.

That last point is critical, and too often missing today. When the rabbinical students of the schools of Hillel and Shammai disagreed in Talmudic times, as they did constantly, they still believed in the same God and the sacredness of the words of the Torah. That is no longer always true of rabbinical students of our various denominations, some of whom believe the Torah is written by God and others that it is written by man. These are not minor differences that can be papered over or willed away by those who value pluralism but also the weight of halacha, or Jewish law.

What is required, though, is not a compromise of one’s principles but a willingness to discuss these important issues and differences, without rancor or personal insult. Or decide not to discuss them at all, and simply focus on what draws us together as Jews rather than what divides us.

We can’t expect miracles from heaven but we can demand respect of each other. This Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, as we recite the petitions for Clal Yisrael, the peoplehood of Israel, let the true meaning of those words pierce the boundaries that separate our hearts. In that way the new year can bring an answer to our prayers, by bringing us closer to the source of our tradition, and to each other.


was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at